By Josette Keelor
It was pure coincidence that director Ron Maxwell happened to be finalizing a film about the Civil War when the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation in New Market contacted him about six months ago in the hopes that he would come to a fundraising battlefield walking tour in Winchester this Saturday.
"My default position is to say yes," Maxwell said Tuesday during a phone interview from Los Angeles. Then, every time, he said he has to step back and hope he didn't agree too quickly.
"I'm usually asked to speak, but [this time] I suggested a special benefit," he said.
Maxwell will be present for the battlefield tour with military historian Ed Bearss at the Third Winchester Battlefield from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., followed by a VIP reception at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema from 1:30 to 3 p.m. and a pre-screening of his independent film "Copperhead" at 4 p.m. Tickets are available only through Thursday.
On June 28 the film will be in select theaters, including the Alamo. All ticket sales from this weekend's event will support the new Third Winchester Battlefield project, which began a few months ago.
Living with his family in Rappahannock County's Flint Hill, Maxwell said he loves the area and wanted to help support local history.
At the Alamo, "I think it's going to show off the film in its best light," he said.
With Civil War productions like "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals" to his name, independent film "Copperhead" was a logical next step for Maxwell.
"It's based on a book that was published in 1893, and it was a best seller when it came out," he said. Author Harold Frederic was a boy during the Civil War, and he wrote about what he knew, Maxwell said.
Actor Billy Campbell plays Abner Beech, a stubborn and righteous farmer in upstate New York who defies his neighbors and his government by opposing the war.
The movie is different from others that depict the same time period because it portrays families living in the North and because it focuses on those at home families.
The only other comparable movie he could think of was "Gone With the Wind."
"It's odd that more than a half century has gone by ... but that picture, too, was mostly on the home front. It's mostly at Tara," Maxwell said. "It doesn't follow the soldiers when they go away."
Since then, movies about the Civil War have depicted mainly the battlefield scenes.
"It's like a connection to what many families are living with today," Maxwell said. "We don't hear about them unless they're our friends ... but they, too, bear a burden. They bear a burden of care and worry."
Other than that, "Copperhead" and "Gone With the Wind" are nothing alike.
"Copperhead" portrays a controversial topic -- "The fact that there were people that were against slavery, for the Union, but who didn't support the war," Maxwell said. They were called Copperheads, the film explains.
In the film's preview on the website copperheadthemovie.com, Abner says, "I do not want our boys dying, and I don't want the Constitution dying with it."
"Blessed are the peacemakers," he also observes. "Is that still in the Bible?"
Maxwell said, "The movie is an exploration of dissent. It's codified into law in the First Amendment. It's there to protect unpopular speech." If you opposed the war, he said, "you had an unpopular position."
"I think it's endlessly fascinating to us."
Anyone living today could be that person, he said, and stakes during the Civil War were high, when emancipation and states' rights were key issues.
"Different times, different motivations, but certainly the home front in the North, I don't think it's ever been portrayed in a big feature film before," Maxwell said.
The movie was filmed in New Brunswick, Canada, which lends its landscapes to the 19th century feeling the movie needed.
"And it's extensive," Maxwell said. It goes on for miles and miles. "No matter what you see, you're in the 19th century."
Even in protected historic areas, it's hard to find such a location in the United States.
When Maxwell filmed 2003's "Gods and Generals" in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the film's crew had to coat the roads with dirt to make it more authentic.
"Harpers Ferry gave us the scale of what urban America looked like in the 19th century," Maxwell said. A red brick urban environment is what the town looked like during the Civil War, "and what modern Harpers Ferry preserved," he said. Still it cost millions of dollars to bring modern Harpers Ferry back to the 19th century.
"Copperhead" takes place in a fictional area called The Corners, and Maxwell said writers had to do their research so the town would look like other towns of that time.
"There are no late Victorian references in the film," he said.
The film's first wave of showings will reach about 75 theaters nationwide on June 28, followed by another 75, mainly on the West Coast, which Maxwell said is typical of indie films.
Its official premier will be June 27 at the Majestic in Gettysburg, where cast members will attend.
VIP tickets include all three events Saturday for $75. General admission tickets, which include the tour and film screening but not the reception, are $50. Tickets can be purchased online only through Thursday at www.ShenandoahAtWar.org or by calling the Shenandoah Valley Battlefield Foundation at 540-740-4545.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org